Oz and Kansas: A Theosophical Quest
By John Algeo
University of Georgia
From Proceedings of the Thirteenth AnnualConference of the Children’s Literature Association, University ofMissouri--Kansas City, May 16-18, 1986, ed. Susan R. Gannon and Ruth AnneThompson, c. 1988, pp 135-39.
Undoubtedly the best-known modern American fairytale is The Wonderful Wizard of 0z, written by L. Frank Baum and firstpublished in 1900. However, the story is most widely known through the JudyGarland movie of 1939, which by its television broadcasts has spread knowledgeof the story around the world and has made it part of our national popularlore. The Wizard of Oz is an archetypal American fairy tale; and that iswhat Frank Baum wanted to produce. As he wrote in the introduction to his book,“It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joyare retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out” (85).
J. R. R. Tolkien has explained that fairy storiesare not normally about fairies, but rather about Faërie, a land that he calls“the Perilous Realm” (42). Whatever else the perilous Land of Faërie may be, itis clearly a projection of the human psyche, and journeys in the Land of Faërieare explorations of our own inner landscape, efforts to map the commonpsychological experiences of humankind (as Bruno Bettelheim has shown).
The Wizard of Oz has all the essentials of atrue fairy tale. It is set in a perilous, enchanted land, where the humanprotagonist is engaged in a quest. The questing plot of The Wizard makesa symbolic or allegorical interpretation almost irresistible, even thoughallegorical interpretation is not exactly on the cutting edge of literarycritical theory these days. As Ursula K. LeGuin puts it, in untheoreticalterms:
I hate allegories. A is “really” B, and ahawk is “really” a handsaw--bah. Humbug. Any creation, primary or secondary,with any vitality to it, can “really” be a dozen mutually exclusive things atonce, before breakfast. (53)
It is impossible not to sympathize with a view elegantlystated with four literary allusions in as many lines. Moreover, there is a goodchance that Baum himself would have agreed with LeGuin. The Wizard, hesaid, “was written solely to pleasure children of today,” who have, hebelieved, “a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelousand manifestly unreal” (85).
On the other hand, ever since the old New Criticstaught us about the intentional fallacy, nobody believes authors when they talkabout their own writing. And attempts to allegorize The Wizard havealready been made. The best known is that of Henry M. Littlefield, who read thebook as containing political propaganda, a celebration of populist ideals andsupport for adding silver to the gold standard. Littlefield made a strong casefor Baum’s sympathies to the social issues of populism, and it seems likelythat political motifs are indeed present in the story, as Littlefield said, “ina minor key, subordinated to the major theme” of sheer fantasy (224).
The Wizard of Oz can also be read, however, asanother sort of allegory, a theosophical one. The Theosophical Society had beenfounded in New York City in 1875, with the objects of fostering brotherhood, ofincreasing knowledge of Eastern, particularly Indic, culture in the West, andof investigating the spiritualist phenomena that had for some time been invogue in America and Europe. Those objects appealed to Baum. Fifteen yearsafter the founding of the Society, Baum was writing sympathetically about it inhis newspaper, The Aberdeen [S.D.] Saturday Pioneer.1 In thefirst issue he edited, he initiated an occasional feature called “The Editor’sMusings,” in which he wrote appreciatively of the Buddha, Mohammed, andConfucius, alongside Christ, and went on to say:
Amongst the various sects so numerous in Americatoday who find their fundamental basis in occultism, the Theosophist[s] standpre-eminent both in intelligence and point of numbers.... Theosophy is not areligion. Its followers are simply “searchers after Truth.”... TheTheosophists, in fact, are the dissatisfied of the world, the dissenters fromall creeds. They owe their origin to the wise men of India, and are numerous,not only in the far famed mystic East, but in England, France, Germany andRussia. They admit the existence of a God--not necessarily a personal God. Tothem God is Nature and Nature God.... But, despite this, if Christianity isTruth, as our education has taught us to believe, there can be no menace to itin Theosophy.
Thereafter, Baum returned several times to a discussion ofTheosophical themes. In another “Editor’s Musings” (22 Feb. 1890), Baumdiscussed fiction with a Theosophical content:
There is a strong tendency in modernnovelists toward introducing some vein of mysticism or occultism into theirwritings. Books of this character are eagerly bought and read by the people,both in Europe and America. It shows the innate longing in our natures tounravel the mysterious: to seek for some explanation, however fictitious, ofthe unexplainable in nature and in our daily existence. For, as we advance ineducation, our desire for knowledge increases, and we are less satisfied toremain in ignorance of that mysterious fountain-head from which emanates allthat is sublime and grand and incomprehensible in nature.
Baum went on to discuss authors who demonstrated thistendency. After the obligatory nod to Shakespeare, he mentioned Bulwer-Lytton,H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mabel Collins (a Victoriannovelist and mystic who was prominent in the Theosophical Society at the timeBaum was writing). He concluded:
Mr. Lovell has taken an important step inpublishing an “Occult Series of Novels” but one which we understand isliberally paying him. The appetite of our age for occultism demands to besatisfied, and while with the mediocrity of people it will result in meresensationalism, it will lead in many to higher and nobler and bolder thought;and who can tell what mysteries these braver and abler intellects may notunravel in future ages?
It is clear that Baum’s mind was already turned toward theexpression of mystical and theosophical ideas in fiction. His own pressing needfor money and his constant alertness for new ways in which he might make itcould hardly have failed to note the entrepreneurial aspects of the public’sappetite for such fiction. Only Baum had not yet discovered where his owntalents lay.
That discovery was to be made after he left South Dakotaand moved to Chicago. There he told stories to his four sons and was encouragedby his mother-in-law to write them down. The result was a number of children’sbooks, reaching their high point in 1900 with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.During this period, Baum had not lost interest in Theosophy. On the contrary,in 1892, not long after moving to Chicago, he and his wife both becamemembers of the Theosophical Society. They were admitted to the RamayanaTheosophical Society in Chicago, having been recommended to membership by Dr.and Mrs. W. P. Phelon.2 Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage,who is best known as an activist and historian of the Women’s Rights movement,was probably the catalyst in Baum’s Theosophical interests. She had become amember of the Rochester Theosophical Society as early as 1885, well before Baumshowed any interest in the subject.3
Baum’s sustained interest in Theosophical matters isattested by his niece, Matilda Jewell Gage, who continued to reside inAberdeen, but visited the Baums after they later moved from Chicago to SanDiego, California. She recalls that her uncle and her grandmother hadTheosophical interests and kept Theosophical books in the house, one title sheremembers being The Devachanic Plane, a book by the early Theosophicalwriter, Charles W. Leadbeater.4 How long Baum maintained an activeinterest in Theosophy is unclear, but he certainly did so during the period hewas evolving the story that was to become The Wizard of Oz.
Baum’s Theosophical interests have not been widelyknown, but there is ample external evidence to show that he was sympathetic toand involved with the movement in the 1890s. There is also internal evidencefrom his writings, specifically The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. There is nottime today to present a full-scale Theosophical reading of the book, so a fewindications must suffice.
A central Theosophical teaching is reincarnation,specifically that after death the personality disintegrates, but the core ofthe individual’s identity has a period of quiescence in a state ofundifferentiated consciousness (called the devachanic plane), and then,impelled by its unsatisfied itch for life, returns to birth in another humanform. Further, Theosophical teaching is that the personality, which isdeveloped anew in each incarnation, has three main constituents: the thinkingmind, the affective or emotional psyche, and the physical organism throughwhich the other two function. These three constituents of the personality aredeveloped in embryo in the order named: mind, emotions, body.
There can be no doubt that belief in reincarnationwas held by various members of Baum’s family. His mother-in-law, Matilda Gage,once wrote to one of her grandchildren:
There is one thing I want you to rememberfirst of all: This is that what is called “death” by people is not death. Youare more alive than ever you were after what is called death. Death is only ajourney, like going to another country. You are alive when you travel toAberdeen just as much as when you stay in Edgeley [North Dakota], and it is thesame with what is called death. After people have been gone for awhile, theycome back and live in another body, in another family and have another name.[Cited by Wagner 6.]
To be sure, reincarnation is not explicitly mentionedin The Wizard, but the plot of the story allegorizes the concept. [Therefollows a summary interpretation, as in "The Wizard of Oz: The Perilous Journey."]
The theme of self-reliance is central to TheWizard, as it is to Theosophy. For example, the best known work of thatMabel Collins whom Baum mentioned as a novelist is a collection of aphorismscalled Light on the Path, in which these sentiments appear:
Desire only that which is within you....For within you is the light of the world--the only light that can be shed uponthe Path. If you are unable to perceive it within you, it is useless to lookfor it elsewhere. (17)
The Wizard of Oz came to Baum as a kind ofinspiration. Baum was a remarkably motherly man. He looked after hischildren--all boys--in their sicknesses and accidents; he comforted them intheir sorrows. He told them bedtime stories. Baum’s stories became so famousthat neighboring children would come to the Baum house every day to hear theevening tale. One evening a story come to Baum that he recognized as having greatpotential; so after the children were put to bed, he jotted down the essentialsof the story on such scrap paper as he had at hand. The result was the outlineof The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In later years, when asked how he hadwritten the book, Baum said,
It was pure inspiration.... It came to meright out of the blue. I think that sometimes the Great Author has a message toget across and He has to use the instrument at hand. I happened to be thatmedium, and I believe the magic key was given me to open the doors to sympathyand understanding, joy, peace and happiness. [Cited by Hearn 73.]
Baum certainly did not set out to write an allegory, buthe was inspired to write a story that, like all good fairy tales, has depths ofmeaning of which the writer himself would have been only dimly aware.Nevertheless, as shown earlier, Baum’s background and beliefs were such as tofit him for the writing of a fairy tale that is also a Theosophical allegory.
For access to the file of this newspaper, I am indebtedto Janus Olsen and Dolores Campton of the Alexander Mitchell Public Library inAberdeen, SD, and to Barbara Rystrom of the University of Georgia Library.
William P. Phelon was one of the organizingmembers of the American Section of the Theosophical Society in 1886, when itwas established as a semi-autonomous unit in the international organization.
The evidence for the Baums’ and Matilda Gage’smembership in the Theosophical Society was kindly furnished by Grace F. Knocheand Kirby Van Mater of the Theosophical Society with headquarters in Pasadena,California. Their membership roll enters the names of Lyman F. Baum and (Mrs.)Maud G. Baum of 34 Campbell Park, Chicago, Illinois, as of 4 September 1892 andrecords that their permanent diplomas (or membership certificates) from theinternational Society were issued on 5 December 1892. The name of Mrs. MatildaJoslyn Gage of Fayetteville, New York, was entered as of 26 March 1885.
4. The information from Matilda Jewell Gage comesfrom a personal interview with her in Aberdeen, SD, in January 1985. Shevolunteered the title of the book in answer to the question, “Do you rememberany particular Theosophical books in the house?”
Baum, L. Frank, ed. TheAberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Aberdeen, S.D., 25 Jan. 1890-21 Mar. 1891.
The WonderfulWizard of Oz. 1900. Reprint in The Annotated Wizard of Oz, ed.Michael Patrick Hearn. New York:Clarkson N. Potter, 1973.
Bettelheim, Bruno. TheUses of Enchantment. New York: Random House, 1977.
Collins, Mabel. Lighton the Path. Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1971; 1st pub. 1885.
Hearn, Michael Patrick, ed. The Annotated Wizard of Oz.New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973.
LeGuin, Ursula K. “Dreams Must Explain Themselves.”In The Language of the Night, 47-56. New York: Putnam’s, 1979.
Littlefield, Henry M. “TheWizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” 1968. Reprint in The Wizard of Oz,ed. Michael Patrick Hearn, 221-33. New York: Schocken, 1983.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In EssaysPresented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis, 38-89. Grand Rapids, Mich.:Eerdmans, 1974; 1st pub. 1947.
Wagner, Sally Roesch. “Dorothy Gage and DorothyGale.” The Baum Bugle 28.2 (Autumn 1984): 4-6.